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May 2006

Obento, Zen gardens, and Presentations

Zen_garden1In The Zen of Creativity, John Daido Loori reminds us that the Zen garden is a lesson in simplicity. Open space without ornamentation, a few rocks carefully selected and placed, raked gravel. Beautiful. Simple. The Zen garden is very different from many gardens in the West that are absolutely filled with beauty, so much beauty in fact that we miss much of it. Presentations are a bit like this. Sometimes we're presented with so much visual and auditory stimulation in such a short time that we end up understanding very little and remembering even less. We witnessed a large quantity of "stuff," but what of the quality? Is it not the quality of the evidence and the experience that matter, rather than, say, merely the amount of data or the length of the experience?

Leave them just a little hungry (for more)
Professional entertainers know that you want to end on a high note and leave the audience yearning for just a bit more of you. We want to leave our audiences satisfied (motivated, inspired, more knowledgeable, etc.) but not feeling that they could have done with just a little less. In a sense, then, a good meal is much like a good presentation. The best meals leave you satisfied but in no way full, stuffed, or heavy. Should not a good meal leave you wanting just a bit more? Wanting more not because you are unsatisfied with what you've had so far, but precisely because you are so satisfied, a part of you wished it would continue.

When I visit the USA, I always marvel at the size of the portions served in restaurants. Somewhere along the way, quantity has replaced quality in determining what is considered a good meal, at least in many parts of the U.S. (and I suspect in other parts of the world too). It's a little different in Japan. Food served in Japanese restaurants is usually served up in small portions presented on relatively large, attractive plates. Usually there is good variety and portions that are both appropriate and attractive in presentation. As Loori points out, this same dynamic form can be found in the Zen garden as well.

"We are nourished by the presentation as we are nourished by the food. And we walk away a little hungry."

                                                     -- John Daido Loori

The ekiben: another lesson in simplicity
Give them high quality -- the highest you can -- but do not give them so much quantity that you leave them with their heads spinning and guts aching. One example of a high-quality meal with a modest quantity is the Japanese ekiben. The ekiben is a special kind of bento sold at train stations in Japan. Eki means "station" and ben comes from "bento." We can find various kinds of ekiben sold on the platform or the shopping areas at all shinkansen ("bullet train") stations. I mentioned this before, but one of the greatest pleasures for me here in Japan is to travel by shinkansen, say, to Tokyo for a presentation, and then enjoy an ekiben on the way back to Osaka. It may seem funny that such an ordinary thing as a simple, traditional bento consumed on an ultramodern, high-speed train can be so remarkable -- even inspiring -- but for me at least, it's true.

Above: I took this picture while returning home on the shinkansen last week. Simple. Appealing. Economic in scale. Nothing superfluous. Made with the "honorable passenger" in mind. After spending 20-30 minutes savoring the contents of the bento, complemented by Japanese beer, I'm left happy, nourished, and satisfied, but not full. I could eat more -- another bento perhaps -- but I do not need to. Indeed, I do not want to. I am satisfied with the experience; eating to the point of becoming full would only destroy the quality of the experience I'm having.

The same bento 30 minutes later. The visual presentation of the ekiben promised a delicious break in the day. The actual experience was even better than its visual appeal promised.

A good bento, like a good presentation, contains high-quality and appropriate content which has been carefully selected, nothing superfluous, nothing arbitrary. The quantity is sufficient to satisfy and to please, but not so much that it ends up undermining the overall quality of the experience. The goal is to have just enough, but no more. A single bento can not contain everything we crave; we must choose the appropriate one for the time and place. Our presentations as well can not contain everything there is to say about the subject, A-to-Z. We must choose carefully, with honestly and integrity. In the end, whether we are preparing a meal or delivery a presentation, it is desirable to leave them just a bit hungry for more.

Living in Japan has taught me not to stuff myself with more than I need (good for my health) nor to stuff my presentations with the nonessential (good for my audience).

Bento-related links
Links to many bento sites (and info on bento).

Box lunches.
Bento (background info).
History of the Bento
Mimi Ito has pics of her beautiful bentos
A billion photos of bentos
Bento site
An unusual display of Japanese cuisine
BBC article.
PowerPoint abuse and the Japanese bento

Al Gore: another presenter extraordinaire?

Gore_topThe prospect of watching a former Vice-President of the United States give a "PowerPoint presentation" probably does not sound too exciting. If I told you that the VP was Al Gore and his presentation was on (yawn) global warming, that may not help peak your excitement much. "Sounds boring" you'd say. But you'd be wrong. From everything I've read and seen -- and from what people keep telling me for months now -- Al Gore's touring "PowerPoint presentation" on global warming is not to be missed. A serious presentation that's got the three key elements: (1) A crucially important (and controversial) topic, (2) an engaging delivery, and (3) visuals that are compelling, stunning and backup, and enhance the message.

"I have PowerPoint envy"
After witnessing Al Gore's live presentation in Seattle earlier this spring (not the movie), Eric de Place from Northwest Environment Watch exclaimed: "I have PowerPoint Envy." Mr. de Place, like so many other people who first see slideware used without bullet points was amazed.

"[Al Gore's] slideshow was easily the best slideshow I've ever seen on this, or any other, subject, but Gore himself was a study in mastery--at once funny and earnest, erudite and thundering. (Where was this guy during the 2000 campaign?)"

                                       -- Eric de Place

Al Gore's presentation is so good, so compelling, that they made a movie about it. A movie that is essentially an Al Gore presentation with solid, simple use of multimedia. What a concept -- who the heck thought *that* would be interesting? But it is.

"A movie about Al Gore giving a PowerPoint presentation about global warming doesn’t sound all that exciting, but if you liked “March of the Penguins,” you’ll love “An Inconvenient Truth.”

                                         -- Eleanor Clift, Newsweek

Al Gore's presentation style
Newsweek's Eleanor Clift says Gore's style is much different than the stiff speech-maker we saw in 2000. "He seems more approachable, and he’s a first-rate teacher as he explains in “An Inconvenient Truth” about the inescapable march of global warming, along with its consequences, that first captured his imagination as a college student."

Commenting on Gore's presentation, master presenter Lawerance Lessig sums it up this way: "Facts, reason and a bit of persuasion." Three important ingredients for any successful presentation. Based on this older video of Al Gore's global warming presentation, the only thing I'd like to see him do better is to not look back at the screen so much. But I assume he has gotten better at this since he has been presenting nonstop for the past couple of years.

Three things stand out about Al Gore's presentation:
(1) He looks relaxed, like he's in his realm. It's a serious issue, and he is serious, yet he's a pleasure to watch and listen to. Where was this guy in 2000 indeed.

(2) The technology is transparent to the audience, as it should be. He's got to be the only 50-something politician (former politician?) who can actually use slideware without stinking up the place.

(3) His slide images are photographic imagery of high quality. The design of the visuals are powerful yet complementary and subordinate to Gore and his message (though in many ways, the visuals are the message in this instance; certainly the visuals are crucial to his case).

Above: Al Gore gets naked, front and center and makes a connection with the audience. The large screen behind him is impressive and the images are important, but it is the person and the message that take center stage.

Above: Al Gore makes good use of visuals to help him make his points and tell his story.

"It is one freaking incredible PowerPoint presentation, let us tell you. We've never seen better. Gore claims to have given his "slideshow" over 1,000 times, and the way he handles the remote, it shows."                                                                                                          -- Michael van Baker,

Spreading the idea virus
Seth_godinSeth Godin says that the more people who know about your idea, the more powerful it becomes (See Seth's slides here, here and here on this issue). So, I would like to see Gore put together a presentation kit which includes video, high-quality images, etc. that individuals and community groups can obtain (preferably via the web) so that they may give similar presentations themselves in schools, associations, etc. All slides would contain a script or key points in the notes view and the kit should contain an updated takeaway. Sure, they can sell the DVD of the movie and people can show that, but it's more effective if people can interact with a real person in a live presentation setting. Come on Al, unleash this presentation to the masses and let others get out there and make the presentation too. (Note: I have just heard that Gore may be training 1000 people to make similar presentations. True? I'd offer my services for free to help train a group of scientists to do something similar to what Al Gore,a lay person, has done.)

"Even if you want to reject the argument, understand it first."

                 -- Lawrence Lessig on "An Inconvenient Truth"

See this film ASAP and spread the word
This is important. Look, I know you may not agree with Al Gore's beliefs, but this is not a political issue (at least it shouldn't be). And even if you want to refute the contents of the presentation/film, shouldn't you see it first? If you are in agreement with Gore on this issue, then spread the word -- wake the kids and call the neighbors -- this is an important film. See this film and you get to see a well designed and delivered presentation sans bullet points, and you may just learn a thing or two about how to save the planet as well. What could be more important?


Inconvenient Truth website, Climate
See the trailer on Apple's site
Al Gore takes Cannes by storm
2004 Al Gore global warming presentation
Nike teaches kids about Earth being a closed system. Yet, why can't FoxNews get an expert who knows Earth is a closed system?
So much for this being a non-political issue. The Competitive Enterprise Institute made TV spots that would make Saturday Night Live proud -- except they are not kidding. "Carbon Dioxide: They call it pollution. We call it life" they say. How's that for a non sequitur? The 60-second spot on glaciers has been rebuked by the same scientist they used to support their claims that the ice sheets are actually increasing, not decreasing. What would these people have told the crew of Apollo 13? "Relax guys, that CO2 building up is not smoke or pollution, in fact, we call it life." Whoa.


• Gore, who is a long-time Mac user and sits on the Apple Board, uses a PowerBook for his presentations and is probably using Keynote, but it doesn't really matter. The only advantage to Keynote is the lower cost, ease of use, smoother dissolves and fades, real drop shadows, etc. PowerPoint or other software would work fine as well.

• The trailer for "Inconvenient Truth" (and the website too) is just a bit over the top and may smack of "fear mongering" to some, or at least overly hyped. This is after all a documentary, not Hollywood fiction. Maybe that's what it takes to get people to see a film these days. But surely some will see the trailer and dismiss the documentary as hyperbole. The Gore presentations themselves appear to be impassioned, but also reasonable, logical and persuasive without the hype.

The power of the genuine smile

YoshidamiwaWhether you use slides or not in your live presentation, your talk is still visual. And while it is your words you want people to remember, they are more likely to recall from memory certain aspects of what they saw not heard. Our facial expressions, therefore, matter. For most presentation topics, a sincere smile, for example, can go a long way. You have heard it before, but I am here to tell you it's true. The smile and its affect is on my mind because last night in Osaka I was inspired by one of the world's greatest smiles and biggest musical talents. I was inspired not by a presenter, but from a performer, Yoshida Miwa, half of the legendary Japanese duo, Dreams Come True.

I've have been a Dreams Come True fan since the early '90s, and I finally got the chance to see them up close (concerts are routinely sold out, always). Just like I was with the Earth Wind & Fire concert I attended in January, I came away last night inspired by the music, the energy, and by the smiles. Most pop music in Japan (and the USA for that matter) is pretty awful stuff (oy vey, don't get me started...). But Dreams Come True are different: Yoshida Miwa, the 41-year old diva who fronts the group, can actually sing. She's a pop star with a wide range and clear soul, funk, and jazz influences. She's a vocalist who records and performs with the world's greatest musicians and engineers such as Harvey Mason, Joe Sample, Bob James, Maurice White, and many, many, more. Miwa and
Masa Nakamura, the duo's composer and bassist (six string), are fluent English speakers and do much of their mixing and mastering in the USA, including their recent album The Love Rocks (MP3 samples).

All smiles
Music aside, what I remember most about the nearly-three-hour concert was the infectious smiles of both Miwa and Masa. Smiles are indeed infectious. But the smile can not be faked (ever see a "Miss Universe" contest?) or forced. You can try to fake a smile, but won't people figure it out? Probably. This article in reports that while genuine smiles can give observers good feelings, "fake smiles of royalty and politicians are detected and have the opposite effect, giving the person an untrustworthy and hypocritical image." We all can recognize an insincere smile. But a presenter or entertainer who actually looks like she is happy to be there (because she really is) is half way there to succeeding in getting her message across. (Can you spot a fake smile?)

A genuine smile can make all the difference. Check out this article by Vijai P. Sharma, Ph.D. Sharma points out that there are essentially two types of smiles, the "Duchenne smile" and the "Pan American." The Duchenne smile is the genuine smile, characterized by movement of the muscles around the mouth and also the eyes. The Pan American smile is the "fake' smile and involves voluntary movement around the mouth only. This is the polite smile you may see from a flight attendant, for example.

"A smile results from a part of  ourselves enjoying a gift of nature."
                      -- Philip Toshio Sudo, Zen 24/7

Enjoy yourself
"Relax, it's only a presentation!" Always good advice. Many engaging, dynamic, interesting people lose their interesting personality in a presentation due anxiety and fear about making mistakes, etc. A natural smile? Forget it -- they're not enjoying the experience. As a result, neither is their audience. It's up to us to change our attitudes. Only we can decide to enjoy the experience and look at it as a chance to share and learn, learning even from our mistakes. By truly relaxing, a true smile may emerge...having a positive affect on our audience and on us.

More on Dreams Come True
MasanakamuraWhat a treat to live in Japan and get to witness such a rare talent up close as Yoshida Miwa and Nakamura Masa. I thank Miwa and Masa for their beautiful music. What I'll remember most about the evening is the energy, the sincerity, and the smiles. Amazing. Inspiring. Memorable.

For those of you who are interested, here are some samples of Dreams Come True to give you a feel for Miwa's voice, wonderful presence, and engaging smile.

A recent performance off the latest album. No lip-synching here (or ever) -- this woman has an amazing range and power, especially when you consider she weighs about 44kg (98 pounds) soaking wet. (Another taping of the same song.)
"Song of Joy" video shot in NYC (English version).
"Love Letter"

The non sequitur and dealing with tough questions

MicIn February I posted about presenting under fire and gave links to some good resources for handling difficult speaking situations. I'd like to add another resource to that list: In the Line of Fire, by Jerry Weissman, is a good book if you are interested in beefing up your skills for answering the tough questions.

The non sequitur

Non sequitur is Latin for "it does not follow." By definition, a non sequitur appears to be a disconnected or random comment, or a random change in subject. Inexperienced presenters, flustered by the heat of the moment and being on the spot, may inadvertently state conclusions that do not follow from the premise or they may make rambling statements that do not follow logically from the question being asked. This can make one appear as if they are avoiding the question (even if that was not their intent). Politicians -- on the left and the right -- are infamous for deliberately using the non sequitur to dodge questions or to give the mere appearance of answering the question. For example, if the question is "Is XYZ constitutional?" and the answer is "Well, polls show that most people favor XYZ. In a recent study, in fact, 87% of respondents support XYZ." Is this not a non sequitur?

non se·qui·tur n.
(1) A reply that has no relevance to what preceded it. (2) (logic) a conclusion that does not follow from the premises.
                                    -- Websters online

Earlier this month, MSNBC reported on a May 4th exchange between US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and a private US citizen, CIA veteran Ray McGovern, which took place during a Q&A session after the Defense Secretary's speech. (You can see the four-minute piece by MSBC here; Jon Stewart's take on it here.)

McGovern asked Secretary Rumsfeld "why he had lied"
* before the war about the link between al-Qaeda and Iraq, a link that McGoven stated was refuted by the CIA and the 9/11 Commission. After saying that "I have not lied,"  Rumsfeld then goes down a path that appears to have more to do with the pre-war consensus regarding the existence of WMD; he did not address the al-Qaeda/Iraq question. When Rumsfeld brings up the WMD issue, McGovern then accused Rumsfeld of specifically stating before the war that he "knew where they [WMD] were." Rumsfeld denied he said that. McGovern then quotes back Rumsfeld's own words from March 2003 (seen in the screen shot from MSNBC below).

*(McGovern's phrasing of the question, by the way, is at least in part fallacious since his question contains a presumption -- that Rumsfeld lied -- which has not been established. This is a bit like the old example of a complex question: "Do you still beat your wife?" Later McGovern asks "Was it a lie?" rather than "Why did you lie?").

Rumsfeld slips to a couple of non sequiturs when McGovern claims again that Rumsfeld clearly stated before the war that there was "bullet-proof evidence" of ties between al-Qaeda and Iraq. "Was that a lie?" McGovern asked. But instead of giving evidence of the al-Qaeda tie, the Secretary said that it was a fact that "Zarqawi was in Baghdad before 9/11..." McGovern claims that this is evidence of nothing. Rumsfeld truly slips though when he refers to the fact that the troops were prepared with protective chemical suits, etc. as evidence that most believed there to be WMD in Iraq. Rumsfeld essentially changes the subject and claims: "It's easy for you to make a charge, but why do you think that the men and women in uniform every day, when they came out of Kuwait and went into Iraq, put on chemical weapon protective suits? Because they liked the style?"

The Secretary's answer got a laugh from the audience, but did it answer the question? The question remember was about al-Qaeda ties to Iraq, not the existence of WMD. Yet, even if the question had been on WMD, the troops being issued protective suits is also a non sequitur and is evidence only that the top leadership believed there to be WMD, not proof that the Secretary did not "lie" or mislead (which was the original question). In response, "That's what we call a non sequitur" said McGovern. "It doesn't matter what the troops believe; it matters what you believe." (
Transcripts of the exchange.)

My aim is not to get in a political debate here, but only to show via a high-profile example what can happen when we answer questions under fire. You or I may never be in this hot of a situation as Donald Rumsfeld. But what do you think? How could the US Defense Secretary have handled the situation better (or did he do as well as he could have)? What the Secretary does do well here, of course, is to keep his cool. Always good advice. His vague, meandering replies in this case, however, leave many wondering if he is being purposely evasive or whether he really has no answer to the question (s) other than to give non sequiturs. Good advice for the rest of us -- everyday business people, researchers, etc. -- is to know our story deeply and anticipate questions (especially the tough ones) so that we can at least minimize the chances of being caught off guard.

Links related to the use of logic and argument
Here are several links to good, short articles on the basics of logical argument, logical fallacies, and so on. Very useful for the writer and speaker alike to review the basics of argument and how to spot fallacies, etc.

On "Spotting the fallacious argument" by lawyer Paul Mark Sandler
Logical Fallacies from
On using logic in composition. (English 101, yes, but a good refresher.)
Logic & Fallacies (from
Logical Fallacies in Writing
FAQ on Constructing a Logical Argument
Hundreds of links from issues of logic, critical thinking, rhetoric, statistics, persuasion, etc.
How Thinking Goes Wrong: Twenty-five Fallacies That Lead Us to Believe Weird Things
Logical Fallacies and the Art of Debate
The Fallacy files (searchable and excellent)
Argumentative writing (Purdue's on-line writing lab)
Critical Thinking Mini-Lessons
Teaching Critical Thinking (great pdf document by Tim van Gelder)
Persuasion Analysis
Spotting fake photos (OK, not on argument or logic, but in the age of "Photoshop for the masses" everyone needs to be on their toes.
Glossary of Mathematical Mistakes
Entire website on changing minds and persuasion
Assertiveness and self-confidence and a whole plethora of great articles for those interested in personal and organizational development
Finally, Monty Python video clip: the argument clinic (classic stuff).

On using humor

ComedytragedyI have a great respect for professional comedians. What they do is difficult. If you don't think it's hard work, just try standing in front of a large audience sometime, and keep them not only interested in your words, but smiling, laughing, and yearning for more. I have said it before, but stand-up comedy (you, a mic, and an audience) has got to be the most naked and terrifying kind of presentations out there. Even the best pro comedians in the world have their stories of miserable on-stage failures (as do preachers, teachers, etc.). For us regular working professionals, inappropriate or poorly-delivered attempts at humor can severely undermine our talks. In extreme cases, an inappropriate joke at the podium can sabotage our entire speech/presentation and even harm our career. Take a look at this story about one such incident which took place in Scotland a few weeks ago. I cringed just reading about the event.

Satire -- my favorite form of comedy -- is perhaps the most difficult of all as there are always some who will not "get it" or who may indeed get your use of irony and deadpan humor but are offended. Sometimes people are offended because the speaker "crossed the line." Sometimes people are offended because it's simply too painful or threatening to admit the speaker speaks the truth. Still, satire is one of the most effective ways of challenging conventional wisdom and the accepted norms by making them seem absurd. Satire has a long history of course. In the Western world, the style goes at least as far back as ancient Greece. You can even find much satire and irony in ancient Buddhist writings as well.

Stephen Colbert speaks the truth(iness)?

Stephen_colbertLast week, Stephen Colbert, a comedian in the USA, was the invited "entertainment" for the White House Correspondents' Dinner. This event usually features a popular comedian of the day to "roast" journalist, Washington insiders, the media, and of course the President himself, who is sitting just a few feet away. If you haven't turned on your computer for the past week, you may not know about Stephen Colbert's 20-minute presentation, a speech given completely in character. The "mainstream media" was a bit slow to pick up on the true story of the White House Correspondent's Dinner: Colbert's "tribute" to the President. The blogosphere has been ablaze with talk about Colbert's performance, however. Already, Wikipedia has an entire site dedicated to this one speech by Colbert, a speech Time Magazine Online is calling "the political-cultural touchstone issue of 2006."

See Colbert's speech here or here.

Conventional wisdom on presenting says to know your audience and play to the room. By this measure, how did Colbert do? The audience in the room was not always laughing or applauding, yet the response from the much larger audience "out there" in the blogophere continues to be enormous. As more and more conference presentations -- which in the past were rather ephemeral affairs -- are recorded and streamed for the world to see, what does this mean for the rest of us? Are we "playing to the room" before us, or to the much larger room "out there" around the world?

"Humor must not professedly teach, and it must not professedly preach, but it must do both if it would live forever."
                                                        -- Mark Twain

What do you think? Did Colbert "cross the line"? Was he over the top or did he "nail it"? What do you make of his speech? Me? I watched this pundit's coverage of the event and wondered if we had even watched the same speech. I am interested, however, to hear your thoughts after you watch Colbert's presentation.

Colbert's speech followed President Bush's speech, a tough act to follow as it had the audience in the room laughing and enjoying themselves. See the President Bush impersonation bit here.

Find more video feeds and quotes from Colbert's speech here. Info on Truthiness here.